Oregon has issued new school metrics and updated guidance last week that will make it easier for in-person instruction to resume and emphasizes returning elementary school students to the classroom.
The new metrics allow Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam to have higher COVID-19 case counts than original metrics; however, they also require low county test percent positivity rates in order to have in-person school, according to a press release from the North Central Public Health District (NCPHD)
Among other changes to the metrics, statewide test percent positivity rates no longer apply.
While state metrics first issued in August required Wasco County, for example, to have less than three COVID-19 cases per week for three consecutive weeks before students at larger schools (250 students or more) could return to the classroom, now, in-person or hybrid education is allowed if there are less than 30 cases over two weeks, and the test positivity rate is under 5 percent.
School size is no longer a factor under the new metrics (with the exception of very small, remote schools of 75 of fewer students, according to NCPHD).
In the latest two-week period, from Oct. 18-Oct. 31, Wasco County had 30 cases and a test positivity rate of 8.1 percent. If the 14-day case count is between 30 and 44 and the test positivity rate is less than 8 percent, that allows careful phasing in of onsite or hybrid schooling, starting with K-3 and adding grades up to grade six. Then, in consultation with the local public health agency, and tracking limited spread over the prior four weeks, a school could thoughtfully expand to middle school or high school in the same fashion.
Schools must begin considering moving from in-person education to distance learning if a county has 45 to 60 cases over 14 days, and/or up to a 10 percent test positivity rate. Remote learning is required if cases are over 60 in two weeks and positivity is higher than 10 percent.
The schools in Dufur and Maupin, as well as in Sherman and Gilliam counties, are already offering in-person instruction. Northern Wasco County School District 21 in The Dalles is still doing remote learning.
D21 Interim Superintendent Theresa Peters said the district has not made any decisions yet on timelines for possible returns to in-person instruction. “We want to invest time in planning ahead to think through every little piece because of the potential for exposure and its impact. You want to limit that as much as possible,” she said.
“So it behooves us all to do very thoughtful planning.”
The district is also surveying parents for their intentions on whether they would send their children to in-person instruction.
Sherman and Gilliam counties, where students have been in classrooms, each have low case counts, but the latest two-week period for each county has uncharacteristically high test positivity rates of 12.5 percent in Sherman and 22.2 percent in Gilliam, according to NCPHD.
Scott Nine, assistant superintendent for the Office of Education Innovation and Improvement at the Oregon
Department of Education, said a tradeoff for allowing higher case counts is the need to improve county testing rates, which is a key to controlling the transmission of COVID-19.
Schools with in-person learning under prior exceptions in counties with high test positivity rates have until Jan. 4 to improve rates before they would be required to go to remote learning based on metrics at that time, Nine said. He called it a “runway” to prepare for and implement increased community testing.
“Increased testing helps limit the ability of a single case to spike test positivity,” he said. He also said community pressure to avoid testing “is the wrong strategy” and conveyed that, “The Oregon Health Authority is ready to work with schools to improve testing access and testing rates.”
The state changed metrics because it has learned schools are not super spreaders, and can actually help identify the virus early if protocols to mitigate risk are followed.
Metrics focus on returning younger students because they require more in person learning and can be more easily kept in small cohorts. Older students have varied classes that put them in contact with more students.
The state has also established a tip line for people to report violations of safety protocols. The number is 1-833-604-0884.